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Posts from the ‘Rock music’ Category

‘Alone with Chrissie Hynde’

chrissie-in-car-in-akron-1There’s an hour-long Arena documentary about Chrissie Hynde on BBC4 this week. During a preview of a longer 90-minute version the other day, I remembered that what I always liked about her was the subtlety underlying the ferocious four-piece rock and roll attack of the Pretenders’ music. It was present in February 1979, when — at the urging of my friend and Melody Maker colleague Mark Williams — I went to see them at the Railway Arms in West Hampstead, a room once known as Klooks Kleek but then renamed the Moonlight Club.

Mark had seen them a week before and had already written a rave review in the paper. I followed up with another one a week later — somewhat unusual, certainly for an unknown band, but they were so extraordinary that it seemed worthwhile. Before the end of the month Mark had written a terrific feature, outlining their background: how Chrissie had left Akron, Ohio for London, hooked up with the NME crowd and the punks congregating at the McLaren/Westwood Sex shop in the King’s Road, formed a band with three guys from Hereford, and copped a deal with Real Records, which had the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic promotional muscle behind it. Mark’s piece went on the cover, giving them greater prominence than the news of Dylan’s forthcoming UK tour, a piece on Siouxsie Sioux in Berlin, an interview with Dennis Bovell, and an examination of the future of disco by Davitt Sigerson.

It’s always nice to be knocked out by something new. The set I heard in West Hampstead featured the razor-sharp rock and roll of “The Wait” and “Tattooed Love Boys”, but the song that really grabbed my attention, and suggested that there might be a real originality at work, was “Private Life”. A hypnotic song set against a slow, spare reggae rhythm, it had a brusquely dismissive lyric that demonstrated Hynde’s gift for skewering complex, uncomfortable and sometimes unreliable or contradictory emotions: “Attachment to obligation through guilt and regret / Shit, that’s so wet…” Grace Jones did a good version a couple of years later, with Sly and Robbie, but the original was the one that cut deepest.

Hynde could be brutal, but the subsequent hit singles “Brass in Pocket” and “Kid” quickly showed us the unusual variety of emotional shadings — including tenderness — at her command. She was already a great singer, her strong, deep voice given its impact by a distinctive quaver and an ability to make a note that you didn’t think she was going to reach. And she looked the part, of course: a monochrome dream of black fringe, waistcoat and jeans against a ruffled white shirt.

When she was approached to make the documentary, Hynde said she wouldn’t talk about personal topics since she had covered all that ground in her recent autobiography (Reckless, Ebury Press, 2015). But she agreed to spend time with the director, Nicola Roberts, and the cameraman/editor, Alex Jones, last summer, inviting them not just to her home in London but on trips to Paris, New York and Nashville, and back to Akron, where she could hardly help but talk about her early years, although she is at her most interesting when reflecting on her life today.

Throughout the film she’s as sharp as you’d expect, occasionally self-mocking and, in an appearance on the comedian Sandra Bernhard’s radio show, endearingly silly. There’s a lot of music, with a bias towards the songs from the Pretenders’ latest album, some of them played with the current line-up, but also rewarding stuff from the archive, like a storming version of “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” with the original quartet augmented by Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols.

It’s more than a little sad to watch the footage in which James Honeyman-Scott, one of the most creative lead guitarists of his generation, and Pete Farndon, the bass guitarist, are visibly diminished by the addictions that would end their lives, Honeyman-Scott at 25 in 1982 and Farndon — who brought the musicians into Hynde’s orbit — at 30 the following year. That first band was a wonderful outfit, full of the spirit and inventiveness so apparent in their recordings together.

There’s another noise you hear in this film: the subdued growl emanating from the V8 engine of the metallic green 1970s Pontiac in which Hynde tours Akron, revisiting the topography of her adolescence. It’s the almost-vanished soundtrack of the American highway.

* An hour-long cut of Alone with Chrissie Hynde is on BBC4 this Friday, February 10, at 9pm. The full 90-minute version will be transmitted later in the year.

Earth Air Water… and Fire

michael-andrews-arthur-brownIt came as a bit of a surprise to walk into a high-end London art gallery this week and discover a small portrait of Arthur Brown, the madcap rocker of the late ’60s, taking its place in an extensive exhibition of the work of the late English painter Michael Andrews.

Andrews was born in Norwich in 1928 and died in London in 1995. A friend and contemporary of Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon, in 1962 he painted a famous group portrait of the denizens of Muriel Belcher’s Colony Room in Soho, for which he also provided a large Tuscan landscape of irregular shape, to be hung on a wall. He was particularly good at social groups and party scenes (as in The Deer Park, All Night Long, and the triptych Good and Bad at Games, none of them, unlike the two Colony Room pieces, included this exhibition).

In later years, however, he concentrated on landscapes and paintings of the natural world, which is why the exhibition of 61 of his works at the Gagosian gallery is titled Earth Air Water. There are several large paintings of Ayers Rock (nowadays also known by its Aboriginal name, Uluru), the River Thames and the Scottish moorlands, where he painted men in tweeds stalking and shooting deer. The intention of the show must be raise his status closer to that of his more celebrated fellow regulars at the Colony Room, something probably denied him by his own modest nature.

He was a perceptive portraitist, and one of the most striking works in the show is a self-portrait from 1988, that of a man with pleasant but unremarkable looks wearing an expression of restrained anxiety. The painting of Brown was made in 1967, when the extrovert singer was still an underground hero and a few months away from an appearance on Top of the Pops, promoting his latest release with flames apparently emerging from his head. Given the theme of that record, Brown’s one big hit, the exhibition’s curator might have added a fourth element to the title of his show: Fire.

I recognised Brown’s distinctive features straight away, of course, but an adjacent portrait — of similar size and vintage — puzzled me.

michael-andrews-dave-brubeck

Then I looked at the catalogue: it was Dave Brubeck, painted from a photograph. Both portraits are listed as “studies” for works on a larger scale. They play very minor roles in the show, but it was certainly nice to bump into them on a rainy morning in Mayfair.

* Michael Andrews: Earth Air Water is at the Gagosian gallery, 20 Grosvenor Hill, London W1, until March 25. The painting of Arthur Brown is from a private collection; that of Dave Brubeck is owned by the Arts Council Collection.

January 20, 2017

us-flagWith three hours to go until the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States, the coffee shop I frequent was playing the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself”. That’s a record with a lot of American history in it, one way and another: a message delivered by a mixed group of black and white singers and musicians, showing how music can provide encouragement, comfort and even guidance.

The saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the singer Lucinda Williams have chosen to mark today’s events by releasing an eight-minute version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, streamable on Spotify here. It was recorded live at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California, on November 28 last year, three weeks after the election, with Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Rueben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. That’s a real A Team, and together they give Dylan’s song the full treatment: harsh, menacing, an ebb and flow of emotions but underneath simmering with rage.

As a teenager in Memphis in the 1950s, Lloyd played with B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby Bland. He is 78 years old now, and has performed in public through 12 presidencies, counting this latest one. “The world is a dog’s curly tail,” he says in the press statement accompanying the release. “No matter how many times we straighten it out, it keeps curling back. As artists we aspire to console, uplift and inspire. To unite us through sound across boundaries and borders and to dissolve lines of demarcation that separate us. The beautiful thing is that as human beings, even under the most adverse conditions, we are capable of kindness, compassion and love, vision and hope. All life is one. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll succeed. We go forward.”

Reconsidering Frank Zappa

zappa-film-1In the final moments of Eat That Question, a documentary in which the director Thorsten Schütte creates a chronological collage of interviews and performance clips from throughout Frank Zappa’s career, we see Zappa with a baton in hand, conducting a piece of his orchestral music. We’re in the early ’90s and, after several years of treatment for prostate cancer, he is close to death. As he waves the stick in a staccato 4/4 pattern, several percussionists play a fascinating jigsaw tattoo. Hearing his score come to life, the composer is clearly entranced. It’s a lovely and touching moment.

I interviewed Zappa a couple of times around 1970, and found it an uncomfortable experience. This was, after all, a man who said that rock criticism was people who couldn’t write writing for people who couldn’t read, or something like that. And I was a rock critic (of sorts). It has always seemed to me a stupid remark, a dismissal of a lot of worthwhile work from some talented and enthusiastic people, but it was probably the result of a series of bruising experiences.

He was intensely clever, of course, and he was funny, if not always as funny as his most fervent admirers found him. The Zappa I had liked at the beginning was not the ironist and satirist but the Zappa who wrote “Memories of El Monte” for the Penguins, who created Ruben and the Jets, and who got the Mothers of Invention to juxtapose sleazy East LA doo-wop with homages to free jazz on Uncle Meat. That was a Zappa who clearly loved his sources. I lost interest when Hot Rats came out; it seemed to me that other people were doing that sort of jazz-rock thing a lot better, and I never properly re-engaged.

But I came out of Eat That Question feeling a whole lot more sympathetic to him. I loved the clip from the eye-wateringly funny appearance on the Steve Allen Show in 1963 where the totally unknown Zappa demonstrates the music he’s devised to be played with drumsticks and violin bow on a pair of bicycles (the whole thing is on YouTube). I was interested by his suggestion that all his pieces might in fact together comprise one single composition, and also by his definition of his philosophy of writing music: “Any thing, any time, any place, for no reason at all.” His excoriation of communism is gob-smacking, his exchange with Tipper Gore’s parental-ratings committee hilarious. I was touched by the film of his visit to Prague in 1990, when he is welcomed by Vaclav Havel and a member of a Mothers of Invention-inspired band called Electrobus recounts how, in the Soviet era, he had been told: “We will take your Zappa away — you will not spread his ideology here.”

Throughout the film, Zappa’s sparring sessions with TV interviewers are generally thoughtful and good-natured, sometimes in the face of complete incomprehension (although the interview with NBC’s Today show, taped during his final days, is very sensitive). It made me wish I’d liked him, and his music, more.

The return of Shakin’ Stevens

shakin-stevensThe first time I was impressed by Shakin’ Stevens was in 1970, while idly playing through his debut album with his group, the Sunsets, a bunch of rockabilly hounds from Cardiff, on the cheap sound system in the listening room at the Melody Maker‘s old Fleet Street office. Called A Legend, produced by Dave Edmunds and released on the Parlophone label, it contained one track that I found I needed to hear over and over again: a wild version of “The Train Kept A-Rollin'”, originally written and recorded by the bandleader Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, in the idiom of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway, and given a definitive rockabilly restyling five years later by Johnny Burnette’s Rock and Roll Trio, with the great Paul Burlison on guitar. It might be a heretical view, but I found the lubricious pounding of Stevens’ version even more powerful than Burnette’s hallowed recording.

Seven years later, while casting his musical Elvis!, the great Jack Good — creator of Six-Five Special, Oh Boy! and Shindig! — selected Stevens to play one of the show’s three incarnations of Presley. Tim Whitnall played the boy Elvis, Stevens played the “perfect” Elvis of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”, and P. J. Proby played the late Elvis. Each of them fitted his role perfectly, and I’ll never forget the impact of the finale, when Whitnall and Stevens stood with heads bowed as Proby, in full Elvis-in-Vegas costume, sang “American Trilogy” from a pulpit against a backdrop of the film of the endless motorcade of white Cadillacs at Presley’s funeral.

At that time Stevens was still virtually unknown to the general public. But the show was a success, running for two years at the (now demolished) Astoria on Charing Cross Road, and soon afterwards he finally made his breakthrough as a solo artist, exploiting his voice and his looks — a cross between Ricky Nelson and Chris Isaak — with a string of pop hits including “This Ole House” and “Green Door”. Since then he’s been seen on reality shows, oldies packages and charity galas. In 2010 he was in hospital for several weeks after suffering a heart attack while gardening.

When I saw that he had a new album out last month, I was reminded of how much I liked that “Train Kept A-Rollin'” and his performance as Elvis. So I listened to it, and was pleasantly surprised. Echoes of Our Times is, at least in part, an attempt to write songs inspired by his family history, which he traces back to Cornish copper miners. That’s how the album begins, and other songs refer to the experience of family members — including his father — in the First World War, to a great-grandfather’s vocation as a Primitive Methodist minister in Wales, and to a grandmother’s work with the Salvation Army.

It’s as if, back at the very start of his career, he’d heard Music from Big Pink and decided to take that route. An excellent band features banjos and harmonicas and mandolins and a harmonium and a general feeling of handmade quality, occasionally broadening to include a small horn section and a cello. Shaky sings very well, with great conviction. Time has abraded his tone a little, which is no bad thing; curiously, on different songs he reminded of both Lennon (“To Spread the Word”) and McCartney (“The Fire in Her Blood”), but mostly he sounds like himself. Not all the material is great, but “Suffer Little Children” is a really fine southern-style blues-ballad, on which his voice has something of the strained urgency of Don Henley. “Train of Time”, all hurtling rockabilly twang and slap, is another great railroad song to put alongside the one I still cherish from his very first recording session.

So has Shakin’ Stevens, at the age of 68, transformed himself into the Welsh Robbie Robertson? That might be putting it a bit strongly. But Echoes of Our Times is thoughtful, enjoyable and substantial enough to make posterity significantly modify its judgement of the nature and scale of his talent.

* Photograph: HEC Records

David Enthoven: the last goodbye

EG King's RoadOn my way to David Enthoven’s funeral this morning, I walked from Sloane Square down the King’s Road and paused at No 63A, where it all began. The weather was glorious: in the perfect sunshine, it was easy to drift back to the Chelsea of an imagined and sometimes real ’60s.

David died in London last week, aged 72, five days after being diagnosed with kidney cancer. Behind that door and up a flight of stairs, he and Johnny Gaydon, his schoolfriend and first business partner, set up EG Management in 1969, with King Crimson as their first clients. Marc Bolan, ELP and Roxy Music soon joined the roster. They were great days. (And here’s the obituary I wrote for the Guardian.)

When I got to St Luke’s, a large 19th century Anglican church just off the King’s Road, it was already close to packed with people wanting to say farewell to an extraordinary man. As they lingered in the sunlit churchyard after the ceremony, the event had something of the qualities of an English garden party, which was just as it should have been.

Tim Clark, his friend and partner in IE:Music, his second management company, gave an address which stressed the life-enhancing qualities that made David special to every single member of the congregation. Robbie Williams, whose life and career David and Tim had salvaged and remade, sang “Moon River” — a lovely choice — accompanied by the acoustic guitar of Guy Chambers. Lucy Pullin and a choir sang “Angels”, which Williams and Chambers wrote after David and Tim had brought them together. Lamar led the singing of “Jerusalem”.

The congregation included Robert Fripp, the founder of King Crimson, and all five surviving members of Roxy Music from the sessions for the band’s debut album in the summer of 1972: Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera and Paul Thompson, who came down for the funeral from Newcastle, where he now plays the drums with Lindisfarne.

One of the morning’s pleasures, over which the man in whose memory we were gathered would certainly have shared a chuckle, was the sight of Fripp, Eno and Ferry (so much history there, from Ferry’s failed audition for King Crimson to Fripp and Eno’s collaboration on No Pussyfooting and beyond) joining the singing of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. You don’t get that every day.

Alan Vega 1938-2016

SuicideThe most interesting rock music is often made when people from different backgrounds or disciplines are thrown together, united in a desire to create something previously unheard. That was what made the Beatles, the Who, the Velvet Underground and Roxy Music so special, and it lay behind the brilliance of Suicide, too.

The singer Alan Vega, who died on Saturday at the age of 78, and the keyboardist Martin Rev formed their duo in New York in the mid-1970s: they were part of the downtown scene that revolved around the Mercer Arts Centre and CBGB. Suicide’s eponymous 1977 debut album, released on the Red Star label, belongs with the Ramones’ first album, Television’s Marquee Moon, Talking Heads’ 77 and — from outside the New York scene — Père Ubu’s The Modern Dance and Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo.

Vega was a visual artist who listened to La Monte Young and the Stooges. Rev had studied with the pianist Lennie Tristano (a unique figure who had a whole school of jazz named after him in the late 1940s) and admired Cecil Taylor. If they had a jukebox, it was probably packed with ? and the Mysterians and obscure early rockabilly 45s. Together they made outsider art that, although too scary for most tastes, influenced a generation of adventurous young musicians.

In January 1977 I reviewed their debut album for the Melody Maker; it seems to have been the first piece written about them in the British press. I loved their stripped-down aesthetic and Rev’s camouflaged musicianship. Naturally I focused on “Frankie Teardrop”, the album’s longest (at 10 minutes) and most extreme track: the story of a 20-year-old factory worker who, in a state of existential despair, kills himself and his young family. Against Rev’s minimalist backing of industrial electronic noise and racing-heartbeat drum machine, Vega’s breathless recitative is punctuated by screams, howls and whimpers.

A few months later they supported the Clash on a UK tour. Shortly afterwards I saw them at the Marquee, where they added an entire dimension to their recorded work, largely thanks to Vega’s compelling presence. My friend Howard Thompson, who had alerted me to their existence, got the album released in the UK in his capacity as head of A&R at Bronze Records.

That first album was recorded at Brooks Arthur’s 914 Studios in Blauvelt, Rockland County, where Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ had been created four years earlier. Its influence is all over Springsteen’s Nebraska, recorded in 1982, and in 2005 Bruce used Vega and Rev’s lovely “Dream Baby Dream” as a concert-closing anthem during his Devils & Dust tour. (In this interview with the Guardian‘s Martin Longley, Vega described Springsteen’s version as “America’s national anthem”.)

Every track on Suicide had something interesting to offer, whether it was a hymn to a revolutionary icon (“Che”), a hymn to a girl (“Cheree”), or hymns to a lost future (“Rocket USA”) and a lost American innocence (“Ghost Rider”). What Kraftwerk were to Europe in the mid-’70s, Suicide were to the US: a snapshot of the Zeitgeist, an artful simplicity and some great grooves concealing profound and often troubling complexities.

* The photograph of Alan Vega (left) and Martin Rev is by Michael Robinson. It is taken from the back jacket of Suicide’s first album.

Radiohead’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’

Since its 11 songs include previously unreleased compositions whose origins date back to 1995, 2000 and 2008, I suppose it’s just a coincidence that Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool sounds like exactly the music the world needs at moment: reflective, sometimes sombre, but not ashamed to offer the consolation of beauty.

In my view, Radiohead keep getting better and better, and this is a work of great maturity. While, on the surface, regret and apprehension are the album’s dominant emotions, the music is subtly laced with a sense of hope that derives from the elegance of the songwriting and the inventiveness of the finely textured settings.

There isn’t a song and scarcely even a note here that I don’t love, but at this early stage (I waited until the CD release before buying it) I’m particularly taken with “Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers”, both of which Thom Yorke sings against backings based on acoustic or near-acoustic guitar. The electronic washes on the former are typical of the care and imagination with which all the pieces have been assembled by the band and their producer, Nigel Godrich, while the latter introduces its bedrock minor-to-major strum via a brief visit to the land of Alice Coltrane.

If you haven’t already heard the lovely “Daydreaming”, click on it above to hear a good example of the ingredients coming together in a sonic collage which demonstrates that the work begun by the Beatles and George Martin is not yet exhausted. Throughout the album, Jonny Greenwood’s arrangements for string orchestra and female voices are like an extra limb of the band rather than a bolt-on extra.

A Moon Shaped Pool succeeds in one of the greatest tasks that art can attempt, which is to expand the personal into the universal. To the violence and bitterness and cynicism that surround us in this strange, misshapen and unfamiliar moment of history, it represents a quiet rebuke and — as much as art can be — an antidote.

Bruce Springsteen at Wembley

Bruce River Wembley

Is it a fan’s wishful imagination, or does Bruce Springsteen reserve something special for the start of his London shows? I think back, in particular, to the spellbound harmonica and piano introduction to “Thunder Road” in a pin spot at Hammersmith Odeon in 1975 and the cathartic, eyes-closed rush through “Born to Run” at Wembley Arena six years later. Last night at Wembley Stadium it was a wholly unexpected solo-at-the-piano version of “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street” from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., slowed down, like he did with “For You” in ’75, but still a little trip back to the unshadowed wordspinning joy of youth: “Mary Lou, she found out how to cope / She rides to heaven on a gyroscope / The Daily News asks her for the dope / She says, ‘Man, the dope’s that there’s still hope.'”

If that was one for the fans, so was the next: “Seeds”, which I don’t believe he plays all that often. First the harsh voice against the stripped rockabilly guitar, and then an eruption of full-tilt rock and roll thunder — a thousand guitars, a hundred horns, the shout of a Hammond organ, the implacable backbeat, the measured walk of the bass, all churning on and on and on towards some invisible horizon — that reminds you of exactly what this music can do, in the right hands. And the realism of the lyrics: a man drags his family across the country, searching for work, seeing the homeless men by the railroad track, listening to the children’s “graveyard cough”. And watching the world of other men go by: “Big limousine, shiny and black / You don’t look forward, you don’t look back.”

“Sorry, son, it’s gone, gone, gone,” the job-seeker is told. What hasn’t gone is Springsteen’s magical ability to make an audience both dance and think, sometimes in the same song. Over the next three and a half hours of a wonderfully warm evening there were many more moments of contrast between exhilaration and reflection, from the dedication of “Tougher Than the Rest” (a gorgeous duet with Patti Scialfa) to Muhammad Ali to the fury of “Death to My Hometown”, from “Sherry Darling” to “Candy’s Room”, from “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” to “American Skin (41 Shots)”. That last one resonates even more powerfully than it did when he wrote it in 1999, prompted by the shooting of the unarmed Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old street peddler from Guinea, by four plain-clothes officers of the New York Police Department who were later acquitted of second-degree murder. Last night he gave it full justice in a sombre, intense reading that was, for me, the centrepiece of the concert.

Billed as a tour revisiting The River, it has become something much less specific and more inclusive, although half a dozen songs from that great 1980 double album studded the set (I was sorry he didn’t include “Wreck on the Highway”, but you can’t have everything). This being an arena, the sound was never going to be more than an approximation, albeit a powerful one, of how he and the E Street Band can sound. The salient bits — the lead vocals, Nils Lofgren’s howling guitar solo on “Because the Night”, Jake Clemons’ invocation of his late uncle on “Jungleland”, Charles Giordano’s keyboard salute to Danny Federici on “Hungry Heart” — were fully audible, of course, but you’d wish that everyone hearing them on this tour could also know their impact in halls of more modest size and human scale — like Hammersmith Odeon, to which he returned with the Seeger Sessions show a few years ago — where giant screens are not required and the musical nuances of which they’re capable might be fully explored.

Still, one thing a Springsteen show never lacks is a sense of intimacy. And as it had begun, so it ended: Bruce alone with the audience, strapping on an acoustic guitar to summon our collective history with “Thunder Road”, just as he did on his last visit three years ago but somehow different and still the perfect closure to yet another night invested with so much emotion that every song had the weight of an encore.

Brian Eno: The Ship

Brian Eno The ShipSomewhere in West London, there is said to be a dealer in second-hand hi-fi equipment whose face lights up every time Brian Eno walks in. Eno’s interest in speakers of all types and sizes was on show this morning in his Notting Hill studio, where a small audience gathered to listen to a 15-channel 3D mix of his new album, The Ship. After the playback, I took the photograph above in order to give a partial sense of the configuration.

Originally commissioned by a gallery in Stockholm, The Ship has also been seen in Barcelona and Geneva in a larger audio-visual form which enables Eno to describe the installation as “songs you can walk around in”. When plans to install it at Somerset House fell apart, Eno decided to present this stripped-down version privately on his own premises, but there are still hopes of a full public treatment in London in the near future. I hope that happens, because to sit in the middle of it — with the sounds coming from all angles and heights, distributed by Eno and his collaborator, Peter Chilvers, according to the individual speakers’ inherent characteristics — was a very worthwhile experience.

This, Eno says, is his First World War album, treating the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 as a prelude to the slaughter that began on the Western Front two years later. To paraphrase him, its subjects are the relationship between hubris and paranoia, and the way the oceans and the land persist while “we pass in a cloud of chatter”. I had no idea of the theme before I sat down to listen, but I couldn’t miss the sense of a threnody running through the two pieces making up the album: “The Ship” itself, 21 minutes long, and a 26-minute suite in three parts called “Fickle Sun”, in which voices and lyrics are allowed to drift in a sea of sounds largely familiar from Eno’s adventures in ambient music.

At first, listening to the slow electronic washes and bleeps and the dislocated recitative of “The Ship”, and noting a tolling bell, I wondered if this was his elegant way of saying goodbye to his friend David Bowie. Wrong there, apparently. But a lovely piece nonetheless, its overlapping layers of synthetic sounds and occasional choirs of distant shadow-voices gradually building a mood of subdued disquiet.

“Fickle Sun” begins with tintinnabulation and flutter, soon thickened by a muffled bass-drum and a wandering rubberised bass line. Eno’s sombre, careful delivery of his stately melody reminds me of Nico singing “Frozen Warnings” or “The End” — at least until organ and staccato synth-brass chords intrude with a faint echo of Holst’s “Mars”, raising the tension before the textures thin out again to support a conversation between the double-tracked natural voice and its synthesised sibling. The short second movement features the actor Peter Serafinowicz reading Eno’s poem “The Hour is Thin” against simple acoustic piano figures: “The hour is thin / Trafalgar Square is calm / Birds and cold black dark / The final famine of a wicked sun…” The suite concludes with a gently paced cover of Lou Reed’s “I’m Set Free”, that famous declaration from the Velvets’ third album, with Eno’s lead vocal, sometimes double-tracked or harmonised, floating on the bell-like keyboards of Jon Hopkins, the guitar of Leo Abrahams and the violin and viola of Neil Catchpole.

Placed at the end of the album instead of being located in the middle of side two, as it was in its original incarnation on The Velvet Underground, this deceptively reassuring song seems even more unsettling. Which, at the end of a cycle of pieces dedicated to investigating the eternal interplay of hubris and paranoia, was presumably the intention.

* The Ship is released on April 29 on the Opal label in various CD and vinyl formats. The full audio-visual installation is travelling to Belgrade, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Mantua and Lodz.